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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The most dastardly aspect of the pitch is that, like a teenager, the cutter starts misbehaving just when it gets out of sight. A hitter cannot track a delivery out of a pitcher's hand all the way to the point of contact; his eyes just can't maintain their focus on something moving that fast toward him. A hitter swings for the point where he judges the ball will be, not where he last saw it. Rivera's cutter doesn't move until those last five feet when the hitter is no longer tracking it.
"His ball, the last time you see it, that's when it starts doing this—wffft!" Boston designated hitter David Ortiz says, indicating the late movement. "You don't see it just when it starts to cut. You can make up your mind, O.K., when he starts to throw it inside, I've got to take it because it's going to finish in off the plate. But there are times when he throws me pitches inside and I take them and the umpire calls it a strike because that one didn't have the big cut. That's when he's really sharp, when he can control how much it cuts."
Lefthanders have actually fared worse against Rivera (.206 batting average) than righthanders (.218) in his career. He has given up just one opposite-field home run to a lefty, and that was 14 years ago, in his pre-cutter days. He has not allowed a home run on 2 and 0, a count normally heavily advantageous to hitters sitting on fastballs. And control? Until Sept. 22, when the Angels' Kendry Morales drew a free pass to begin the bottom of the ninth, Rivera hadn't walked the leadoff man in the ninth with a one-run lead since 2005. He has thrown three balls, never mind four, to only 14% of the hitters he has faced.
"I've actually had a couple of guys tell me the approach they take against Mariano is not to swing at all," Gross says. "They think more than 50 percent of his pitches are never in the strike zone. Those are the ones that guys swing at and can't hit. So some guys have told me they won't swing because they think he's not going to throw you three pitches that are in the strike zone.
"Think about that. If the game is on the line and you need a hit, do you stick with that approach? I don't know if I could. But against Mariano, some guys swear you're better off not swinging at all."
ONE NIGHT IN SEPTEMBER, AFTER THROWING A shutout inning to get the win in a walk-off Yankees victory, Rivera showered, changed into blue jeans and a T-shirt that read SANCTIFY across the back, and left the clubhouse with his teenage son, Mariano Jr., without a reporter even bothering to talk to him. Another night, 10 days later, after yielding a walk-off home run to Ichiro Suzuki for his first blown save since April 24, Rivera left the clubhouse happily licking a chocolate ice cream cone. Win or lose, Rivera is the same.
"You're seeing the greatest closer of all time," Posada says. "I don't care about eras. There's nobody better. No one can even compare. His body doesn't change. He doesn't change. He's the same Mariano as he was as a setup man, as a closer, as a friend."
Out of camera range Rivera is gregarious. He has become a mentor to Phil Hughes, the latest of many pitchers to serve as his eighth-inning liege. And he regularly needles his teammates before games. If Derek Jeter is slumping, for instance, Rivera will walk by his locker, offer a look of disdain and say, "Jeet, are you going to get any hits today?" Then he'll walk away before Jeter can respond. He will tell a slumping Posada, "You haven't hit a ball hard in two weeks." And he will tweak Alex Rodriguez, saying, "Are you going to hit the ball hard? We pay you all this money."
Rivera has thrown the equivalent of an additional season and a quarter in the playoffs, and with so many chances—88 games—even the Hammer of God has failed spectacularly. There was the home run he surrendered to Indians catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. with a chance to close out the 1997 Division Series, the blown save (facilitated by his throwing error) against the Diamondbacks in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series and the blown save (set up by a rare leadoff walk) with a chance to end the '04 ALCS in Boston.
"I saw him down in 2001," Posada says. "He was a long time in front of his locker after the game was lost. We all went by. The bunt, if he throws the guy out at second base, we win the game. He bobbled it a little bit. And the ball got away. Do you remember that it rained a little bit? The ball was wet. He threw it, and it slipped out of his hand. Things you don't remember. They were trying to close the roof."